ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Stewart Welch. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
I describe Jay Craig as a Mountain Brook man—but that’s neither fair nor accurate.
Yes, Jay and I both attended Mountain Brook High School, but when he graduated, he left Mountain Brook never to return.
He currently resides in Sherman Heights near Ensley and lives a humble life congruent with his neighbors.
In college, Jay studied landscape architecture and later became an Urban Designer for the City of Birmingham. Having lived through the sixties in Birmingham, Jay developed a heart for helping those who most need help… people living in our lower-income communities.
He had ideas on how to bring communities-in-conflict together. At one point, he literally risked life and limb to test those ideas in battle-torn Bosnia.
Jay worried about gentrification
In 1980 Jay opened a park rental on Highland Avenue called Loveable Skates and then published a monthly tabloid called The Southsider.
Through his publication he became aware of the commercial revitalization of Five Points South and Highland Avenue. He feared that gentrification would cause the artists, musicians, and other free spirits to have to move.
He watched in dismay the balkanization and poverty of Birmingham and decided to devote his life to develop a plan to help others.
Jay goes to Bosnia
After getting a UN Press Pass through The Southsider, Jay flew to the besieged city of Sarajevo. Everyone in Bosnia knew Birmingham’s history and that gave him a little “street credit’”
He met with planners, architects, and government, religious, and military leaders from Sarajevo collecting maps, plans, and taking over 1,000 photographs showing the condition of the buildings and streets.
With these materials he started teaching classes at universities on how to rebuild war torn communities in ways that would unite people.
In Birmingham he learned there was no peace without justice, but in Sarajevo he learned there was no peace without unity and no unity without justice.
His goal was to figure out how the rebuilding process could unite people that were currently in a brutal ethnic cleansing war.
He had to smuggle the maps and plans out of the country and was told it would be very dangerous–the maps and photographs were illegal for citizens to carry.
Once, soldiers surrounded him at gunpoint and put guns in his face. They accused him of being a journalist–fearing he’d write bad things about Sarajevo.
He survived and came back home with a new appreciation for the power of unity and the catastrophic results of disunity.
Jay’s determined to help lower-income communities find pathways to a better life.
To accomplish his plan, Jay felt he needed to get to know the people of these communities on a first-name basis. So ten years ago he moved into one of those communities to explore his ideas on a small scale.
A simple—but ingenious plan
Jay’s over-arching idea is to transform each community into its own business model.
Many of these communities have numerous abandoned homes and empty lots that are owned by the State of Alabama due to non-payment of property taxes. These properties can be purchased for a minimal amount.
The idea is to have the neighborhood ‘corporation’ purchase the properties with low interest (or no interest) loans from third-party investors who are also interested in helping our lower-income communities.
This land would be used to develop organic food and flower gardens or plant nurseries. Many of the community residents either have part-time jobs or no job at all. They would provide the labor and participate in the profits as the goods are sold to local restaurants or other customers.
In the restaurant business, there is a huge movement towards organic farm-to-table dining and Jay’s strategy plays well into that theme.
As these neighborhood workers learn new skills, Jay plans to launch a home landscaping company. For homes that can be repaired, the community would repair them and set up a rent-to-own program so that others in the community can see their dream of home ownership come true.
To further ‘connect’ these communities, Jay incorporates youth activities which focus on building self-esteem and the belief that every person has value and can achieve their own dreams through planning, discipline and execution.
Jay Can’t Do This Alone
Jay is one of the most courageous and big-hearted people I’ve ever met.
While this is one man’s vision, it can’t be done by one man alone.
Jay needs help both within the lower-income communities and from folks from more affluent communities.
He needs funding; he needs shared ideas; he needs encouragement.
He needs to build a community of support around him to help him bring his dream of helping improve the lives of those living in lower-income communities.
His plan for community action is to create a successful business model in one neighborhood and then replicate that model across Birmingham; then across Alabama; and, who knows… across the country.
Let others know about Jay. Share this piece on Facebook and Twitter.
If you’d like to get involved, contact him at email@example.com.
Stewart Welch, III is founder of The Welch Group, a fee-only investment management and financial advisory firm serving clients throughout the United States. He was a high school classmate of Jay Craig and is providing financial support for Jay’s vision through The Welch Group Foundation.
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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org